Monday, December 5, 2016

The Devil Is In The Details

If plot is the fabric of a story, then details are what stitch it together.
Yes, I admit it: I’m one of those readers who skips over lengthy paragraphs of establishing detail so I can get to the action, particularly if the story is set in a familiar environment. I don’t need tons of descriptive detail in order to fully enjoy the long-awaited love scene, or the shocking discovery of the murder victim, or whatever it is I’m anticipating.
So how do you keep your readers engaged between dialogue exchanges and bursts of action? Reward your reader’s patience by including details that enrich and inform.
A common mistake newer writers make is including too much detail. The writer sees the story so clearly in their mind’s eye they wish for a reader to visualize it exactly the same way. What they often don’t realize is that readers don’t want to be passive participants in the reading experience. Readers want to employ their own imaginations, to have the ability to fill in the blanks of a scene or a setting. It’s one of the reasons people often say, “The book was better than the movie,” because the film is somebody else’s interpretation of a character or setting.
When I’m drafting a new scene, there are several elements I address when considering how much setting and character detail to include: blocking; familiarity of the environment; specificity of objects; and the stage of each character’s development.
Blocking: Anyone who’s ever been on a stage is familiar with this term, which refers to the geographical location of the characters in the scene. Sometimes blocking can reveal character and/or further the plot, such as: “Jessie and Nicholas squared off on opposite sides of the small office.” Already we know there’s conflict between these two characters.
Conversely, it can slow pacing and even be misleading: “Nash sat down at the table. Erica sat down on his right side while Olivia chose the seat on his left.” Unless seat selection reveals character or is part of the plot, get your characters to the table (“They gathered around their mother’s dining room table, the lingering fear of her stinging tongue still palpable after all these years.”) and get on with the show.
Familiarity of environment: The more familiar the location to your readers, the less detail required. And of those details, focus on the ones your characters will interact with. For example, your MC walks into a classroom, a setting most of your readers have personally experienced. Instead of describing the room in detail, pick out the one or two details that will advance your story:
“Rows of small tables filled the classroom, each seating two students. I found an empty spot next to one of the prettiest guys I’d ever seen.”
Specificity of objects: This is a detail that can be used to reveal your characters. For example, in my current WIP, a character working as a bodyguard picks up a copy of The Wall Street Journal while on guard at a library. She could have just picked up a magazine or stood filing her nails, but this character is aware her profession has a limited shelf life and is concerned about investing for the future. This action by itself does not a character make, but subtle layering of details throughout the book will give readers a deeper understanding of, and an emotion connection to, your character.
The Stage of a Character’s Development: When we first meet a character important to the story, your reader will want a physical snapshot. The details you initially share should reveal character as well as physical traits. For example:
“He was a big man in every way; from still-powerful shoulders straining at the seams of his monogrammed dress shirt, to his beefy hands, crisscrossed with ancient scars. His thinning hair was quite grey, almost white, and razed into bristles. His eyes, shielded by a large pair of silver-rimmed glasses, were steely, and despite being diminished by folds of aging skin, they were clear and piercing.”
Hopefully, I’ve revealed the essence of this man’s character along with his physical appearance. The next time we meet him, his character will be enhanced not with further physical description, but through details such as specificity of objects (“his sandpaper voice made rougher by the single malt scotch”).
If you have favorite techniques for deciding what details to include in your writing, I’d love to hear from you on Twitter @kestrester or on Facebook:


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Writing Motivation

One of the hardest parts of being a writer is keeping your motivation. Most of us have been there: rejection number 400, another form, an R&R turned down, our fifteeth time on publisher submission, a CP points out all the holes in your name it, we've trudged the same path as a hundred writers before us. So, how exactly do we keep our motivation?

We all know the old adages "write because you can't not", "write for the passion" and "it just takes one yes", but sometimes those feel like just that...adages. So what can you really do to keep your spirits up? Here's what I do:

1) Keep a note of what you're good at, and what you can improve on. I have this on my whiteboard. The more times one skill gets transfered to the "I can do it well" list, the more motivating it is. Baby steps, people.

2) Go into the guts of your book and find the reason you wrote it. What made you think it was cool and fun? What got you excited? Now go and immerse yourself in it, for no other reason than simple enjoyment. I wrote my fantasy because I loved the idea of magic being made by quantum physics (yes, I geeked out), so I go and watch documentaries on science and magic. It really raises my spirits.

3) Go out and ignore writing for a day. Go do something else. I find the longer I sit staring at the computer, the more anxious I become. Go get some oxygen and outside air.

4) Stay OFF social media for a day. Yes, it's amazing to hear of all the good news about agent and publishing success. It'll probably make you feel a bit frustrated and crappy, too, so give yourself a break.

5) Binge on your favorite thing - movies, books, chocolate, hiking...whatever. Just go on, guilt free, and do it.

So, that's it. This is my way to cope and to keep my motivation chugging along. I hope one of these is useful to you! Now go get your happy!!!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

PITCH WARRIORS (to the tune of Queen's "We Are the Champions")

Dedicated to all Pitch Warriors and hopefuls out there fighting the good fight (or writing the good write), by Susan Gray Foster

I’ve paid my dues
I’ve done my time
I’ve worked for years
Never making a dime
And bad mistakes
I’ve made a few
I’ve told instead of shown and I’ve used lots of filter words too
(And I need to just write on and on and on and on)

We are Pitch Warriors, my friend
And we’ll keep on writing till the end
We are Pitch Warriors
We are Pitch Warriors
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the writers of the words!

I’ve been rejected
I’ve rewritten it all
But I’ve had CPs and my awesome mentor
I thank you all
Still it’s been no bed of roses
No pleasure cruise
I consider it a challenge before the whole publishing world
And we ain’t gonna lose
(And I need to just write on and on and on and on)

We are Pitch Warriors, my friend
And we’ll keep on writing till the end
We are Pitch Warriors
We are Pitch Warriors
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the writers of the words!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Choose Your Own NaNoWriMo

By Stephanie Scott

Happy All Nano’s Eve!

You mean All Hallow’s Eve?

Nope. It’s the eve of National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo! All NANO’s Eve!

By now, if you’re already planning to jump into writing a 50k draft during the month of November, chances are you’ve read half a dozen blog posts with tips and ideas for how to succeed. You know, those helpful plotting charts, outline a chapter-a-day and pre-plan your meals to stock your freezer posts.

This post is not one of those posts.

This post is a challenge to flip your conventional approach, abandon your insecurities, and a plea to go for broke! Which is the exact spirit of National Novel Writing Month. Aka thirty days of literary abandon.

It's time to Choose Your Own NaNoWriMo!

Here are your starting options:

Step 1:

I’M A PLOTTER (Go to Step 2)
I’M A PANTSTER (Go to Step 3)

Step 2:

Congratulations! You’re likely the type of person who buys a nice planner and actually uses it. I bet your sock drawer is organized, too. Your challenge as a plotter is to FORGET YOUR OUTLINE. You’ve done the prep work, now let your story take over! If you’ve never strayed from an outline, never fear—it will still be there in December when you revise. If you’ve never let a character take your story in a new direction, silence that inner editor and see where the story takes you. If you stick to your plan entirely, you could be missing out on untapped stories lying dormant in your brainpiece. RESPECT THE SUBCONSCIOUS BRAINPIECE. (Now go to Step 6)

Step 3:

Congratulations! You were MADE for NaNoWriMo. Outline -- what’s that? Hit a dry patch? Add a gun! (What?) Okay, so you write by the seat of your pants. Here’s your challenge. Before you crack open your writing program, jot down 4 things that need to happen in your next chapter or what your character needs to experience to deepen his or her story arc. Do this on a blank piece of actual paper. Using a pen. With your hands. Yes, it’s awkward holding pens these days when all we do is text and type, but I promise, you are tapping a different part of your brainpiece (we talked about respecting brainpieces in step 2, btw). Take ten whole minutes to do this task even if you want to claw your eyes out to get to that pants-o-rific manuscript. I may have perhaps tricked you into light plotting, but November is all about trying new things! (Now go to Step 6)

Step 4:

Writing by the seat of your pants is a way some writers complete their drafts. We’re nice to them because they’re special. Plotters need to know where the story is going ahead of time and often are very eager to share those details with anyone who will listen. The important part here is that any of these options is okay and no single drafting method is better than another. Also, writers of all ilk love discussing their methods with anyone who will listen. (Go to Step 5)

Step 5:

Congratulations! You can choose any method to write your story that you want. Challenge yourself to write a little bit every day, even if it’s under your target word count. The NaNoWriMo website has a handy word count tracker. If you’re intimidated by stats, challenge yourself to log your word count every day until it becomes habit. If you love stats, go a full week without looking at that graph. It’s distracting you. You need to be writing. FIFTY THOUSAND WORDS, HELLO! (Go to Step 6)

Step 6:


We all needed that. (Go to Step 7)

Step 7:

Nano is what you make of it. Why not use this challenge to try a method you’ve never done with drafting. Maybe this is your first book and everything is new. The spirit of Nano is welcoming—anyone can do this. Anyone CAN do this. It’s up to you whether you clock in, pants or not, and write the words.

Who all is ready for Nano tomorrow? Leave your response and Nano username in the comments!

Monday, September 19, 2016


In A STORY IS A PROMISE, Bill Johnson examines the right way to open a story. And that’s important information to have. But as a PitchWars mentor, I’ve read hundreds of opening chapters and find that the same kinds of mistakes show up time and time again. With that in mind, I’ve put together a handy checklist of several ways to avoid writing the wrong opening. Ready? Let’s go!

The story starts in the wrong place
Occasionally, the story starts too late. When this occurs, the reader doesn’t have enough information to understand what is happening and/or they don’t have enough information to care about the main character. Most often, stories start too early, burdening the reader with pages and pages of material that don’t signal where the story is going or drive it forward in a meaningful way. (The best way to know if you’ve started in the right place? Share your work with critique partners and beta readers.)

The story lacks emotional resonance
There may be all sorts of exciting, dangerous, or even sad things happening in your story. But if we don’t know how these plot points impact the main character on a personal level, it makes it hard for us to buy into their journey. Give us a reason to care.

The story lacks tension
It’s easy to mistake tension for drama or action. Consequently, readers who are writing quiet (character-driven) stories sometimes mistakenly believe that their stories don’t need tension. But tension is what drives a story. Tension doesn’t have to mean running from bad guys or a storm brewing on the horizon. Tension means that there is some type of conflict—which can be internal, external, or both––driving the story forward. Otherwise, there is no reason for the reader to keep turning the pages.

The writer tries to play coy
Writers often try to hook the reader by dangling a carrot in front of them—referring to an incident that they assume will pique the reader’s curiosity and make them want to continue turning the pages. But often, these carrots confuse the reader and they end up setting the book aside. The line between hooking the reader and confusing them can be a very difficult one to walk, and CPs and beta readers play a crucial role in helping the writer get it right.

Too much backstory
If you’ve followed the PitchWars hashtag for any length of time, this is one that you’ve undoubtedly seen come up again and again. Don’t make the mistake of bogging down your opening pages with tons of information that the reader “has to have” to understand the story—if they really, truly have to have all of that information, then you’ve probably opened your story in the wrong place. But the chances are, the reader doesn’t need nearly all the information you’ve stuffed into your opening. Cut most of it, and leave only that which the reader absolutely cannot move forward without. (How do you know if you have the right balance? CPs and beta readers, of course. Noticing a theme here?)

First Day of School Syndrome
Stories that open on the first day of school are extremely common. As such, it’s exceptionally difficult to write a scene that feels fresh and engaging. The same goes for opening with dreams (in addition to signaling that you are a new writer, this technique causes the reader to feel like the writer has pulled a bait and switch, and they lose trust in the writer. Don’t take that risk). Another opening mistake along these lines—having the character gaze into a mirror. Find a more original way to convey the MC’s appearance.

Make sure your story doesn’t fall into any of the common opening traps, and you’ll be several steps closer to writing a solid opening that delivers on its promise to the reader. (Hopefully you’ve also walked away from this with a sense of how important critique partners are to the writing process. More about that here.)

Happy writing!

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis
A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. Her debut novel, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at

Friday, September 16, 2016


by Kim Long

I love hearing from my critique partners (CPs) or beta readers on a new manuscript. But I confess after the initial reaction of, "Yay, feedback!" is some dread, "How am I going to handle all of this?" It really can be overwhelming, especially when I receive feedback from several readers within a few days. That's a lot of information to take in all at once. In an effort to decrease my anxiety as much as possible, I focus on breaking things down.

First, usually, before I hand off a manuscript, I'll have an idea of a few potential issues. On my current manuscript, I worried about too much info-dump in the first chapter, whether chapter 4 was too early for a flashback, and if my MC played a big enough role in the ultimate conflict resolution. These weren't the only things, mind you. Let's face it, I knew I was going to be getting a bunch of, "What's she feeling here? Show some emotion!" comments because, yeah, that's par for the course. But those are small things. I leave the small things for the end. The first thing I want to know is whether my concerns on the bigger things match at all with my CP's concerns.

In this case, one CP totally thought too much info-dump, one CP thought it was "perfect," and one thought it might be too much, but she wasn't sure how to fix it. With that feedback, I knew chapter one was going to have to change. Got it.

The chapter 4 flashback wasn't a problem with anyone. In fact, two of the three CPs LOVED where it was in the book. WOO HOO!

The MC's role was called out by everyone. Not surprising. But, the great news was that one CP particularly had an idea changing something else in the story could work to fix that problem. Taking that suggestion, I brainstormed and developed a new sub-plot that will put my MC front and center.

Now that I had an idea what to do with the three main issues, I looked to see if any of the CPs had other, "major" issues that would call for more substantial revisions. I didn't really have any this time around, but in a previous manuscript I had a CP raise an idea I really liked that I thought could help the manuscript. I note those bigger things--things that will require writing new scenes/deleting scenes--for the next stage.

For my current manuscript, once I had my CPs' answers on the issues that I had and know their main plot/character issues, I tackled the opening first, working to reduce the info-dump. Good thing is the CP who also thought it was a problem had a couple suggestions on how to make it work.

Once I revised the first chapter and got it in a good place, I opened one CP's edits and looked for the first edit/comment. If I thought the CP's suggestion worked, I revised in my document. I did this through the entire manuscript, looking at each comment in chronological order and then editing my manuscript as I saw fit. When I reached a point that I had to make substantive revisions based on my plan to add the new sub-plot, I revised accordingly. (And in my last manuscript, this is the time where I wrote new scenes/deleted scenes to make the other substantive plot changes.) Then I returned to the CP's version and continued on my way. By the time I reached the end of my manuscript and the CP's notes, I had a revised version with the new beginning and the new sub-plot. YAY!

But I'm not done yet, of course. Next, I opened the second CP's line edits. I repeated the same process--reading each comment in order and deciding whether to revise in my manuscript. The good thing is that some of the second CP's suggestions were already taken care of through the first revision. And, if the second CP mentioned something was an issue, I had the luxury of referring back to the first CP's comments to see how that scene played with them.

I essentially repeated this process for each CP. Usually, I have only three CPs at a time. If a beta reader has overall comments, I'll read those as soon as I get them and note substantive changes I want to make.

Overall, I find the above process works well for me. I don't get overwhelmed by trying to incorporate every suggestion every CP makes at one time. Also, by focusing on a single CP's edits at one time, I can get a better idea of that CP's thoughts as they read the manuscript.

As for how many comments/suggestion I take and how many I don't, it depends on the CP, but overall I think I probably consider and make at least some kind of minor change over 80% of the time. If a CP wants a bit of emotion, fine, it probably needs it. Lol. If a CP thinks a line can be cut to better the pace, why not? If a CP is confused about something, why wouldn't I add a phrase to clarify in case that CP wouldn't be the only one confused?

Basically, I don't enter revisions with the thought of revising as little as possible. Instead, I want to make changes. I'm dying to make changes! The worst is getting something back with no feedback and no comments!  (Luckily, I have a great group of CPs where that is not a problem!)

What are your tricks or tips for handling feedback? Let us know in the comments!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

HOPE in the face of rejection

by Susan Gray Foster

Whether we’ve successfully published or we’ve just completed our first manuscript and are tentatively beginning to query, we’ve all been there: In that place where someone has rejected our writing and all the hours, effort, and pieces of our soul poured into it.

Rejection can mean that a manuscript isn’t quite ready yet, that there’s work to be done. Or it can mean that the right person just hasn’t seen it yet. Most of the time, unfortunately, there’s no way to know for sure which is the case.

Rejection hurts. It’s hard. We feel angry, sad, frustrated, jealous, foolish, bitter. Devastated.

But here is a truth about writing and about stories and the storytellers who milk their hearts to create them: They are full of hope.

Stories are created from the belief that human lives matter, that our stories matter, that there is meaning in life and we can help decipher and share it in some way, and that we can connect with others—even across hundreds or thousands of miles, or years.

That’s hope.
If you can remember a time in your life (maybe recent, maybe NOW, maybe long ago) when everything was hard, but a story sparked your imagination and made you believe that somewhere out there someone felt what you felt and understood, or that somewhere out there a better life was waiting to unfold for you, then you know what I’m talking about. Stories help us believe that even in the darkest times, the human spirit can triumph, that love can prevail. Stories give us hope.

If you’ve written something, it’s because you believe in that hope and you want to share it. Hold onto that.

Some of us need a moment, or several hours or days or weeks, to wallow, suffer, watch Pride and Prejudice or whatever Netflix show of choice, or to listen to a sad song on replay.

But then, whatever the next step is—whether it’s continuing along the path you’re on, or sending your manuscript to a new critique partner, revising again with some fresh feedback, finding a writers’ group, seeking out a professional editorial service, taking a class, studying a craft book or your favorite novel, setting a project aside for a bit, or writing something completely new—TAKE THAT STEP! Keep learning, growing, pushing, believing.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul –”

Give hope space to unfold its wings and take flight: Write.